Spy Planes: FBI Flew Over 100 Secret Missions Over 30 Cities in Recent Months
The Associated Press reported new details on secret surveillance flights being conducted by the FBI, including how the agency registers aircrafts with fake companies to conceal their role.
A recent review conducted by the AP found that over a “recent 30-day period” the FBI flew over 100 flights over 30 cities in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
Most of the missions were with Cessna 182T Skylane aircrafts. They were flown over Boston, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Seattle and parts of Southern California.
The planes carried video surveillance equipment as well as Stingray surveillance equipment or cell-site simulator gear, which creates a dragnet and enables the FBI to trick cellphones in a given area into providing identification information to agents.
Unlike the agency’s drone fleet, piloted aircraft is not subject to the Justice Department’s policy barring drones from being used to monitor “First Amendment activities,” which may partly explain why the secret flights have been spotted over cities where communities have protested killings by police.
Sam Richards, an independent journalist, first reported that the FBI was flying secret missions over cities with aircraft registered to fake companies.
“The aircraft have been registered to corporations that do not exist, and the purpose of the aerial operations is not known at this time. The flight patterns of the aircraft indicate they are most likely conducting surveillance, much like the controversial aircraft caught flying circles over the city of Baltimore which has seen many protests recently,” Richards reported on May 25.
Richards searched “aircraft registration” in Bristow, Virginia, and found many “three-letter acronym companies.” A few of the aircrafts listed were “registered explicitly to the Department of Justice.” He decided the companies had to be fake when his searches for information on the Internet were “fruitless.” He also noticed that the flight patterns—repeated circles around a city—indicated these planes were likely involved in surveillance missions.
The AP acknowledged that “independent journalists and websites” had been investigating the fake companies by tracing “post office boxes in Virginia, including one shared with the Justice Department.” But the AP did not name Richards in the published report.
According to the AP’s interviews with unnamed “law enforcement officials,” lawyers at the Justice Department decided to approve the creation of fake companies for secret surveillance missions.
The FBI requested that the AP not reveal the names of fake companies that were uncovered. They claimed it would “saddle taxpayers with the expense of creating new cover companies to shield the government’s involvement and could endanger the planes and integrity of the surveillance missions.” The AP rejected this request because the names were found in “public documents and in government databases.”
The AP was unable to confirm why exactly the FBI needs to have covert aircraft hovering around cities for periods of time. A spokesperson and other officials would not provide specific examples of why these kind of missions were necessary.
Generally, the AP indicated the flights have become an “important tool in criminal, terrorism and intelligence probes.”
However, the FBI refuses to make basic details about the use of aircraft public. The following details were censored in the Justice Department inspector general’s 2012 report [PDF]:
The report notes the flights are used for criminal investigations, but there is something done with these missions the FBI prefers to keep secret from citizens.
The summary of the FBI’s use of aircraft mentions “crisis response.” Missions conducted for counterintelligence, domestic terrorism, and public corruption investigations are acknowledged at the bottom of one of the report’s pages. Still, there is something the aircrafts are used for, which the FBI wants to remain in the shadows.
Here is another example of the FBI’s excessive secrecy around its use of aircraft:
General upgrades the FBI started to make to aircraft in 2009 were kept as closely guarded secrets, along with how many millions of dollars in taxpayer money is being spent on aviation.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI, DEA and US Marshals Service on the flights that have been recently spotted by citizens across the country.
The concern is that these aircrafts are potentially using “Dirtboxes.” They work like Stingray surveillance equipment and “sweep up identifying information about tens of thousands of cell phones in a single flight.
Such flights can also be used for something called “wide-area surveillance,” which the ACLU’s Jay Stanley has previously explained.
This involves the installation of super-high, gigapixel resolution cameras on planes, which are then used to monitor entire cities. Every moving pedestrian and vehicle can be tracked: the beginning and end everyone’s journeys, and the route taken in between. This gives the authorities the power to press “rewind” on anybody’s movements, and learn a lot of intrusive things about how they live their life. Among the companies offering this technology are major defense contractors working for the Pentagon and an Ohio company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, which is trying to sell it to local police departments.
What makes these flights even more troubling is the fact that the FBI has coordinated with corporations and other private entities to monitor individuals organizing and participating in “Black Lives Matter” protests.
Michael Brelo, a Cleveland police officer who at the end of a car chase stood on the hood of a car and fired 15 shots at an unarmed couple, was acquitted in May. Just prior to the verdict, FBI deputy director Mark Giuliano expressed his concerns about potential protests.
“It’s outsiders who tend to stir the pot. If we have that intel we pass it directly on to the PD, we have worked with Ferguson. We’ve worked with Baltimore, and we will work with the Cleveland PD on that very thing. That’s what we bring to the game.”
The Cleveland police identified “hot spots” before the verdict. These were neighborhoods with mostly black residents.
If any missions were flown over Cleveland, what was the purpose? Were they investigating specific individuals? Or were they collecting identifying information from thousands of people indiscriminately in order to see if it matched up with anyone the agency or police needed to spy on during protests?
Finally, it is unclear who is flying these secret surveillance missions. The AP uncovered a “mysterious name,” Robert Lindley, who is on many of the aircraft registrations. The FBI would not confirm whether he is a government employee.
The inspector general’s report in 2012 described how the FBI had a trial program that it intended to expand, which would allow “non-agent pilots to fly FBI aviation operations in effort to alleviate special agent pilot shortages.” This would “add depth to the FBI’s pilot pool.” It is possible that private contractors are flying a number of these missions for the FBI.
Image is from Jonathan Palombo. It is not one of the planes flown by the FBI, but a similar example of the kind of aircraft being used for missions.